Published in 2005, On Earth as it is in Hell by Brian Hodge is the third novel based on the Hellboy comic book series and the first not written by Christopher Golden. Unlike the previous two novels, this book is considered to be outside of the accepted canon of stories. It does however work off of established Hellboy continuity up until the point that it was published.
Hellboy, Abe Sapien, and other agents of the BPRD are brought to the Vatican after a fiery attack upon the archives kills a number of people, destroying many priceless texts from history in the process. One survived, however, which Hellboy believes to have been the true target of the attack: The Masada Scroll, purportedly written by Jesus of the Nazarene himself decades after the crucifixion. The culprits? None other than seraphim, having unleashed devasting heavenly fire. But why would agents of Heaven enact such death and destruction? In trying to keep the scroll safe for the Vatican, Hellboy and company come up against heretical fanatics, diabolical deities, and a conspiracy to bring about Hell on Earth.
Of the Hellboy novels I’ve read so far, I think the plot of this book had the most going for it. I enjoyed the previous two novels, but they leaned a little too heavily on action without having enough in terms of plot to frame the action around. While this book did have its more action-packed moments, there was a lot of intrigue and mystery at the heart of the story that had more me hooked. It isn’t long after Hellboy departs Vatican City with the scroll that agents of unknown origin try to take it from him. It quickly becomes apparent that there are a couple factions trying to get their hands on it, with one succeeding. The story then becomes the group following clues left behind by those subdued or killed to try and find out who these factions are, what they’re planning, and how to stop them.
I thought a lot of these elements tied together pretty nicely in the end, with one group coming out as more nefarious and the other as pawns with good-intentions, in a twisted sort of way. What the main antagonists wanted the scroll for was perhaps fairly obvious, but there are higher stakes that get uncovered and resolved as well. A lot of darker elements get incorporated more than one might expect too, with certain characters suffering permanent repercussions as a result of necessary yet risky action. It was a compelling mystery and I was happy that it felt more like a case than the previous novels, which seemed more like window-dressing for Hellboy to fight something.
The two primary perspective characters are Hellboy and Liz Sherman, the latter a woman with a troubled past thanks to her latent ability to summon and control paranormal fire. Hodge writes Hellboy quite well; he acts and sounds accurate to the way Mike Mignola portrays him in the comics, highlighting his competence without while also showing a more vulnerable side. For the most part Liz was well written too; I especially liked that she was mentoring a young man with strange powers of his own that have also caused him a lot of emotional problems. You get the sense that she’s a little over her head, as she’s still hasn’t got a complete handle on her own situation, yet is doing better than she probably thinks she is.
There is one area where I had a problem with the way Liz was written though, and it was the bizarre ways references to her gender were made. There’s a baffling passage that had me cackling at how absurd it sounded, wherein she lists bizarrely specific examples of her womanhood when it wasn’t necessary. Also, at a plot-relevant point later on she throws something and needlessly references how she’s never been one to throw “like a girl” as a way to emphasize how on the mark the throw was. These were strange anomalies in a sea of otherwise accurate characterization for Liz that unfortunately stuck out like a sore thumb.
On Earth as it is in Hell is a good Hellboy novel, but I can’t bring myself to rate it higher than the previous two books. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but something about Hodge’s writing style made a lot of the reading more of a labour for me. I had to push myself to finish it in a timelier manner than my regular pace. The characters uncovering the forces as work did keep me more than invested enough to want to finish it, but I did not enjoy the experience as much as I would’ve liked. This really is a shame, because I honestly do feel this novel had the best plot so far, it just didn’t come together in the writing as much for my taste.
My Rating: 3 out of 5